Thursday, September 13, 2007

Saving the CTA - No Magic Bullet

As most citizens of Chicago and its outlying suburbs are already aware, service on CTA, and to some extent, Metra has been worsening as of late. Nearly as many have heard that due to Governor Rob Blagojevich's politicking and refusal to play ball with both Democrats and Republicans in Illinois, there has been a budget shortfall, and the CTA will lose funding, forcing a corresponding hike in fares and a reduction of service.

On my way home using Metra (as I refuse to use the CTA unless absolutely necessary), I was handed a flyer entitled "Are slow zones in you [sic] future?". It was a proclamation of dire warning that the CTA, Pace, and yes, even Metra, would be facing fare hikes and drastically reduced service, and I should contact my government representatives immediately to correct the situation. At the bottom was a url to a website,

Thinking this was a grassroots campaign started by a concerned local citizen to restore some kind of dignity and either resurrect or terminate our regional transit currently on life support, I dutifully visited the website. However, the fact that is's not .org and .com, that it's linked to from the CTA page, and it advocates massive bailouts at the taxpayer's expense, I suspect that it may be astroturf.

I agree in principle with the aims of the website: public transportation for Chicago. Economies of scale make it cheaper, faster (at least in theory: Metra is fast but CTA is slower than biking), better for the environment, and more comfortable than driving. Also, I agree with the website that Chicago transit needs a massive overhaul. While I'm satisfied with Metra, the CTA is an embarrassment. When riding it I feel like I'm in a third world country, compared to the experiences I've had with other systems: Le Métro, The Tube, Metrorail, and the Las Vegas Monorail.

Is is the proposed solutions proposed by this "grassroots" effort that I find, quite frankly, disturbing. Those are found here. Here are some of their ideas that I take issue with:

  • We must prevent service cuts and fare hikes, and bring our existing system into a good state of repair. Yes, we need to bring the system into a good state of repair, but, I think rate hikes are in order and are actually a good idea. When fares are too low, you have the free rider problem. Increasing fares will eliminate the use of the CTA as a homeless shelter, as at the moment, a $2.25 fare can allow you to ride the trains almost indefinitely with free transfers. In fact, I think Metra-style zoning should be instituted, and transfers between trains treated just like transfers between buses and trains. Since fare cards are used instead of tokens, the need for a universal fare for all kinds of rides is obsolete. Raising fares also has a psychological factor; if you think people are complaining now, as fairs increase, citizens will demand better service, and as they say, "it is the squeaky wheel that gets the oil." Of course, we should continue to have reduced fares for children, seniors, students, and the disabled.

  • The last state capital bill, Illinois FIRST, expired in 2004. A statewide capital bill—which would typically cover transit as well as road and school construction—is desperately needed. In particular, a new capital bill is essential for securing federal transportation funds and bringing our transit system into a state of good repair. I vehemently disagree with this. Under no circumstances should people of other states, nay people of other counties be paying for our transportation network. It is the responsibility of the citizens of Chicagoland to pay for the RTA, be it using fares, gas tax, sales tax, or whatever. People of Cook County should pay for the CTA, and people of surrounding counties pitch in to help Metra, but that's it. The vast majority of users are local commuters.

  • A dedicated, reliable source of operating funds to support the current operations and growth of CTA, Metra, and Pace. The way we fund public transit operations in the Chicago region is ripe for change. The 1983 RTA funding formula was a last-minute political solution that was never meant to last. The revenues it has supplied to each service board have grown more slowly than the costs of providing service. A new means of funding area transit that addresses today’s realities—such as reverse commuting, suburb-to-suburban commuting, and urban revitalization—is needed. This is going to sound like a radical proposition, but if the 1983 was intended as a temporary solution, then we should let it expire. CTA started as a corporate monopoly in 1952, and it was bailed out multiple times by the government. I don't think taxpayers should be bailing out corporations, therefore if the system is ready to collapse, we should let it collapse. Put the assets up for auction. I'm sure there are many entrepreneurs or even neighborhoods who would love to take over a piece of the CTA (such as a bus route). You could have Pete's Clark Street Bus Line compete with the Lakeview Bus Circuit. Let's see raw capitalism compete with raw socialism, instead of the half-assed corporatism we have right now.

  • Measures to eliminate the paratransit deficit. Chicagoland’s disabled residents deserve quality door-to-door transit service. But we need to find a funding source to support this costly service, while increasing its efficiency and encouraging its users to try accessible fixed-route services. I agree with the second half of this proposition, but not the first. We should reduce the fares for the disabled, and encourage them to move closer to accessible stations, but door-to-door service should be left up to charity (yes, they do exist) or up to private services.

  • Support for CTA’s pension fund. CTA’s pensions, which cover retirement benefits and healthcare for retirees, are severely under-funded. Additional funds must be found to help bridge the funding gap. In addition, laws concerning CTA’s collective bargaining agreements process must be changed to allow the agency to negotiate pension benefits with its unions more fairly. I sympathize with people's needs for benefits, but this should remain an issue between the workers and management, and not become a politicized issue for taxpayers. In fact, focusing on this might alienate some potential supporters. For instance, in my industry, there is no union, no pension (though a possibility for 401k usually), and all employment is "at will" - employee or employer may terminate the job at any point. Personally, I think things are great: I negotiate directly with my employer without a union boss breathing down my neck, and I fund my own retirement as I please. The fact that this group wants taxpayer money to become a bargaining chip in a labor dispute really annoys me. The only reason why there's a union is because the RTA is a monopoly - there is no other employer for these workers except for perhaps Amtrak. This creates a very dangerous situation: the union, management, or the government can stop the trains to force citizens to do their bidding.

In short, these are my summarized suggestions:

  • Increase fares (as noted above)

  • Eliminate waste, such as politically connected jobs, excessive cigarette breaks, strict labor contracts - though waste is more easily removed using competition (see below)

  • Open up competition with different transportation. Allow competing bus lines or tram lines. Allow revenue-losing train lines to be bought out. Legalize rickshaws.

  • Clean up the CTA trains! There's no reason that CTA can't be as clean as Metra

  • Give us express service on the CTA rail lines. Delays notwithstanding, it takes an hour and a half to get from downtown Chicago to downtown Evanston when not at rush hour.

  • Automate electric rail cars. This is the 21st century for chrissakes! This would mean cheaper, safer, and more reliable service.

  • Another controversial point: outsource construction and maintenance (not to be confused with offshoring). There's no excuse for having only a couple guys working at once on a station upgrade while the rest watch, and they only work on a daily shift.

  • Example of a FREE CAPITALIST RAIL STSTEM that fulfills most of the suggestions above, costs no taxpayer money, and charges no fares! We can do better than that!

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